Tag Archives: Billy Crudup

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Unlike the majority of the movie-going audience, I was one of those people who really enjoyed 2012’s Prometheus. While I acknowledged its flaws and all the nonsensical, I found myself captivated by the horror and action elements as well as the creature designs and mythology of the universe it had created.

Fast forward now to Alien: Covenant, which is carrying high expectations given Ridley Scott’s return to form following The Martian. Whereas Prometheus tried to shy away from a direct connection to the Alien franchise, the title of this sequel indicates that they are fully embracing it this time. The trailers also showed that the movie appeared to be returning to the horror roots of the original. To be honest, even though I thought the trailers looked good, I wasn’t all that sold on Alien: Covenant because it felt like it was trying too hard to recapture the magic of the original, putting it at risk of resorting to cliches and thinly veiled homages.

Turned out I was wrong. Alien: Covenant is without a doubt a true sequel to Prometheus, but it also fails to duplicate the sense of genuine terror that made Alien so great and the awesome action that made Aliens an instant classic.

The story picks up about a decade after the Prometheus went missing, with the Covenant carrying a new crew and a whole bunch of colonists and embryos in cryosleep. The only waking member when the film starts is Walter (Michael Fassbender), an android with the same likeness as David from Prometheus. Naturally, stuff happens, and the crew finds themselves on a detour where deadly alien life may or may not be lurking.

The cast is led by the brilliant Assbender (he bends so much ass in this film) and Katherine Waterston as Daniels, with a surprisingly effective dramatic performance by usual stoner Danny McBride and the typically reliable Billy Crudup. There are about half a dozen other supporting characters, but none of them are particularly memorable, which is one of the key problems I had with the film. In fact, apart from Assbender, no one really stands out, not even Waterston, who falls way short of channeling her inner Ellen Ripley. Despite the similar height and the hair, it’s not even close.

You don’t need to have seen Prometheus to understand what happens in this film, though it certainly helps. That said, I can still imagine a lot of people being confused as to what’s going on with the plot, especially regarding what happened on the planet on which the characters find themselves on. Even I had to go back and read up on Prometheus again on Wikipedia to give myself a bit of a refresher on all the stuff about the mysterious Engineers and so forth.

However, the most important reason people will watch Alien: Covenant is for the horror/action, and the film does enough to satisfy, for the most part. Notwithstanding a couple of scenarios I found somewhat tacky, most of the horror sequences in the film deliver, with one in particular standing out from the first half of the movie. I liked that the film did not shy away from the gore and some very disgusting visuals, though I felt not enough time was spent on building up the suspense. I also enjoyed the evolution of the creatures throughout the film until we see the classic facehuggers and of course the first xenomorph. Kudos for using mostly animatronics for the creature effects as they simply look a lot more realistic than CGI.

So I found myself frightened, disgusted and excited at various parts throughout the 123-minute movie, but never truly terrified like I was for Alien or on the edge of my seat like I was for Aliens.  Considering it also had a plot that was probably more convoluted than necessary, a fairly predictable ending, and a lack of memorable characters, Alien: Covenant was clearly not as good as I wanted it to be. Despite enjoying it for what it was and being engaged all the way through, I actually think I prefer Prometheus more.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I just heard they are filming the sequel to Alien: Covenant starting next year.

Spotlight (2015)

spotlight

I had relatively high expectations going into Spotlight, the film that appears headed straight for this year’s Best Picture Oscar if critics are to be believed. For the most part, the hype is justified.

Most people know about the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, but not nearly as many people know about the journalists who uncovered the story. Spotlight is the fascinating true story about the eponymous team from the Boston Globe that worked tirelessly to expose the systemic child abuse being swept under the rug by the Catholic Church for decades.

Like all good true stories, this one feels meticulously researched and respectful to the subject. From the very start, you get a great sense of something remarkable brewing, and director and co-writer Tom McCarthy does a commendably patient job in allowing the characters and story to develop, much like how a real journalistic investigation peels back the layers bit by bit, with the occasional exciting breakthrough. The way McCarthy depicts the subtle push-back from the predominantly Catholic community in Boston helps explain why this dirty secret stayed a secret for so long. The pacing is so important to a film like this, and McCarthy manages to get it perfect.

The film also features without a doubt the best ensemble cast of the year, led by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci. The great thing about the cast is that they’re not just there to create an impressive list of names — each of them has a key role to play and they all deliver memorable performances. It’s hard to think of another instance in recent years where so many big names are so balanced that each can have such meaty roles in the same movie.

The thing that impressed me the most about the Spotlight is the way it portrays the church and the Boston Globe journalists. As disappointing and infuriating it is to learn about the extent of the cover-up, I never got the feeling that the Catholic Church was being vilified beyond what the facts implied. The same goes for the portrayals of the Spotlight Team — they’re neither saints nor heroes, just a bunch of journalists who are extremely dedicated to their jobs (and who make me ashamed to think I once considered myself a semi-journalist). This even-handed approach makes cannot be understated — it makes all the difference in a movie like this.

While Spotlight is an exceptionally well-made film that ticks all the boxes, it’s not the kind of jaw-dropping experience that will have most casual viewers running out of the cinema declaring that it’s the best thing they’ve seen this year. Personally, I appreciated the film more than I was entertained, excited or thrilled by it.

That said, it’s not that kind of film. In some ways, Spotlight reminds me a little of last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman, in that the film has it all on paper — intriguing premise, masterful direction, great script and terrific performances — but doesn’t quite hit it out of the park in terms of building an emotional connection . The difference, however, is that I found Spotlight to be the much more involving and compelling film because it at least made me care for the characters and what they were fighting to unveil, as gut-wrenching (especially as a parent) as it was to watch at times.

In all, Spotlight is a fantastic film with an important story to tell, and it’s told brilliantly with a superb cast and outstanding performances. While I consider it a riveting drama that’s perhaps easier to admire than enjoy, that should not stop it from being regarded as one of the best films of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: Shockingly, the last film Tom McCarthy wrote and directed was the Adam Sandler comedy The Cobbler.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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Most people have probably heard of the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a bunch of elite college students in 1971 got more than they bargained for when they volunteered for an unusual psychological study to play either inmates and guards in a simulated prison environment. There have been a few movies based on the concept, most notably the 2010 film The Experiment (starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker), but I wasn’t aware of a film that tried to depict the actual events — until now.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is largely based on the book by Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the man who conducted the study back in 1971 to test the hypothesis that the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behaviour between them. And so begins a fascinating look into the complex and unexpected dynamics between power and authority, subservience and rebellion, empathy and cruelty. It’s not just the inmates and guards either — the effects of the experiment extended to the teachers and the supervisors, and even to the relationship between Zimbardo and his girlfriend, who happens to be a former student of his.

This is by no means an easy film to watch — some parts are unbearably tense, others just plain unbearable — but it’s one that absolutely captivated me from start to finish. Part of it is indeed the intrigue of the premise itself, though it would be unfair to attribute it all to that since I basically already knew what would happen and what the outcome would be.

It is a low budget film, but it’s also a film that didn’t need much of a budget because almost all of it is set in the simulated prison on the university campus. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of creating a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia, and most importantly they somehow manage to make you believe what is happening on screen despite how little sense it seems to make. It made me incredulous, it made me angry, and it made me sad — it’s one of those surreal experiences that make you question what you think you know about human nature and even yourself.

The film is far from fast-paced, though there’s always enough drama and tension — notwithstanding some repetitiveness — to compel me to keep watching. I suspect it will be remembered as a polarising film, and I can definitely understand if some people dislike it for its dark tones and ugliness.

First announced in 2002,  The Stanford Prison Experiment was in developmental hell for a dozen years before unknown director Kyle Patrick Alvarez managed to get it done with a brilliant cast of established actors and up-and-coming stars.

Headlining the performers is Billy Crudup, who plays the well-intentioned Zimbardo, with a whole bunch of recognisable names — or at least faces — filling out the other roles. These include Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and soon-to-be Flash in the new DC cinematic universe), Michael Angarano (The Final Kingdom, Red State), Tye Sheridan (Mud, Tree of Life, and soon-to-be young Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse), Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), James Frecheville (the fantastic Aussie man-child from Animal Kingdom), Johnny Simmons (Jennifer’s Body, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner series), Jack Kilmer (Palo Alto; Val Kilmer’s son), Thomas Mann (Project X, Me Earl and the Dying Girl, Barely Lethal), Olivia Thirlby (Juno, Dredd), and Nelsan Ellis (True Blood).

Interestingly, the script is co-written by Christoper McQuarrie, best known for winning the screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects and more recently for writing Edge of Tomorrow and directing the awesome Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

As uncomfortable and frustrating as it is, I think The Stanford Prison Experiment is a brilliant film that will have you asking yourself how you might react in their situations. Though it’s based on events that are more than 40 years old, the concepts and themes remain as relevant today as they did then, perhaps even more so in light of what we now know since the outbreak of the War on Terror. Thanks to the wonderful performances from the talented cast, a great script and skillful filmmaking, I found myself engrossed in the experiment, much like its participants. It’s a chilling and troubling experience that deserves a lot more attention and discussion than it’s been receiving.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Watchmen (2009)

I had been importing my short Flixter entries for all my movie reviews up to now, but I thought if any movie deserved a full review, it would be Watchmen, possibly the most anticipated movie of the year for many (unless Harry Potter 6 or Transformers 2 is more your thing).

Disclaimer: I will preface this review with two comments: (1) I am going to stick to my convention of not revealing much about the plot or what happens in the movie; (2) I have not read the Watchmen graphic novel yet (thought it might ruin the movie experience if I read it beforehand).

watchmen-poster

Watchmen (2009)

Director: Zack Snyder

Main cast: Malin Ackerman (Silk Spectre II), Billy Crudup (Dr Manhattan), Matthew Goode (Ozymandias), Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl II), Carla Gugino (Silk Spectre I)

Rating: USA: R, UK: 18, Australia: MA

Running time: 163 minutes

4 out of 5 stars

Watchmen is likely to be one of the most unusual films you will ever see.  It’s about superheroes, but it’s not your typical superhero movie.  Most of the superheroes don’t display any obvious supernatural abilities (which really just makes them people who like to fight crime and have costume fetishes).  It’s often difficult to discern who is good or evil, right or wrong.  Probably all of the main characters exhibit some form of mental disorder at varying levels of seriousness.  In a sense, they are the anti-superheroes.

As I said, I don’t like to reveal the plot for those that don’t want to know about it (but I assume most people who go to see it have a rough idea).  All I will say is that the story takes place in an alternate historical version of 1985, during the peak of the US/USSR Cold War.  This becomes clear in the opening sequences.

However, to some extent, it doesn’t really matter what the plot is about, because at its heart, Watchmen is a character movie.  The story is told in non-linear form, jumping from character to character and revealing their back stories through flashbacks.  There is a central line in the plot, a mystery waiting to be solved, but the focus is firmly on the characters – who they are, how they became the way they are, their personal struggles, their fears, desires, motivations and ambitions.  At the same time, there is this constant undercurrent about the nature of human beings, and in particular, their capacity (or lack thereof) for understanding and compassion.

The Watchmen graphic novel (by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins) first came out between 1986 and 1987, which explains the setting.  For many years, it was regarded as unadaptable, and after seeing this film, I got a sense of why that may have been the popular opinion.  It’s a shame that the movie was not made closer in time to the graphic novel, because the story reflects many of the contemporary anxieties of the American public of that period.  Many of those anxieties are still relevant today, but they have evolved (in the wake of 9/11) and the impact is not quite the same as it would have been.

Directing and Screenplay

Director Zack Snyder and writers David Hayter (who wrote the original script) and Alex Tse (who kept the best elements but amended much of it) should be commended on bringing Watchmen to life at last.  As I haven’t read the graphic novel, I cannot comment on how good the adaptation was, but as a standalone film, it was very good, though not great.  The difficulty may lie with the running length – at 163 minutes, it is very long for a superhero movie (though not as extraordinary as it would have been a few years ago) – but at the same time, you get a strange feeling that there was much more of this bizarre world yet to be explored.  Perhaps the director’s cut, which is supposedly 191 minutes (and coming out with the DVD), will be a more complete picture for those that want to see more of it.  For some, I imagine 163 minutes is already too much.

Acting

rorschach
Haley as Rorschach was amazing

The importance of the acting in a film like this cannot be understated.  For the most part, the actors in the lead roles delivered believable performances that traversed a plethora of emotions.  The clear standout would undoubtedly be Jackie Earle Haley as the freakish yet intriguing Rorschach, the best character by far.  You’re already impressed with him when he wears a mask that obscures his entire face.  You then become even more amazed when he takes off the mask.  Truly brilliant.

Not far behind is Patrick Wilson (Haley’s co-star in the magnificent Little Children), an extremely underrated and underappreciated actor who plays Nite Owl II, a slightly overweight and awkward social misfit.

If there is a weak link, it would have to be Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias.  While he may fit the bill physically (tall, lean and traditionally handsome), he doesn’t quite exude the charm and presence needed from the character.  Not to take anything away from Goode’s performance because it was adequate, but if you have to pick on someone it’s him.

Violence, Sex and Special Effects

Given the classification ratings for Watchmen, it’s not surprising that there is an abundance of incredibly bloody and gruesome violence (as well as ‘normal’ violence), a bit of sex and nudity (both real and assisted by special effects) and some coarse language (though not as much as I expected).  I’m glad they made this film for adults rather than worry about the classification and go for a toned down version that simply wouldn’t have worked.

The fight scenes were superbly choreographed – smooth, crisp and whole, thankfully avoiding the rapid cut scenes that have plagued action films of late.  And from the guy who directed 300, I would have expected nothing less.  On the other hand, Snyder didn’t shy away from some of the more frightening scenes either, displaying the pain, gore and blood in all its glory.

As for the special effects – they were good, but certainly not groundbreaking.  They did a fairly decent job with Billy Crudup’s Doctor Manhattan, but there were times when you could easily spot things that were completely computer generated (not that you would expect them to build the real thing).

Conclusion

On the whole, Watchmen was very very good – but it fell considerably short of the masterpiece some it expected to be.  It may seem unfair, but you cannot NOT compare the film to its source material (or at least its reputation if you haven’t read it), which is considered by many to be the greatest graphic novel of all time.

There were some absolutely brilliant sequences littered throughout this movie, but it was more scattered than consistent.  Those expecting an all-out action flick might be disappointed because there are quite a few ‘dull’ character development moments in between.  I assume there will probably be 4 broad classes of reactions to Watchmen: (1) loved the graphic novel and therefore loved the movie; (2) loved the graphic novel but felt the film did not do it justice; (3) haven’t read the graphic novel and now want to after seeing the film; (4) thought it was weird and stupid and didn’t get it.

I put myself in the third category.